Sneak peek at a desert Armageddon
By David Isenberg
WASHINGTON - Millions of words have been written about Iran's nuclear program
and how terrible it will be for not only the Persian Gulf and Middle East
regions, but the entire world, if it obtains nuclear weapons. But there has
been one underlying question that nobody has asked, let alone answered; namely,
what would actually happen if there was a nuclear war between Iran and another
Perhaps the monumental destruction that would accompany any nuclear exchange
helps explain people's reluctance to discuss that scenario. Yet during the Cold
War people not only discussed
it but a veritable industry was built around parsing the literal fallout if
deterrence should fail. Indeed, it was Herman Kahn, who founded the Hudson
Institute, who in 1965 wrote the book On Escalation, which included an
escalation ladder, whose final and 44th step was "spasm or insensate war".
In a somewhat similar spirit, a recently released briefing has been making
waves. Compiled by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International
Studies (CSIS), it explored a series of conflict scenarios, such as Iran vs
Israel, Iran vs the United States and Syria vs Israel. The conflicts are
assumed to take place between 2010 and 2020.
The briefing is turning heads because it was written by Anthony Cordesman, who
was a former director of intelligence assessment in the US Secretary of Defense
office. He also holds the Arleigh A Burke chair in strategy at CSIS and has
done numerous assessments of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East.
Despite all the concern over Iran's ability to make nuclear weapons in the
future, its hypothetical forces are not that formidable, as nuclear arsenals
go. In the briefing it is assumed to have less than 50 nuclear weapons, most of
them fission, possible some of them boosted, ie, fusion weapons. Most of them
range in the 20 to 30 kiloton (KT)yield, with some having a 100 KT yield. For
delivery it has 100 Shahab 3 missiles, as well as various planes and some
cruise missiles. It is also assumed to have some chemical weapons.
Because Iranian nuclear weapons are assumed to be less accurate and of lower
yield than Israel's, they are assumed to require more weapons per target,
perhaps three to five. Also, as lower yield nuclear weapons require more
strikes, Iran's forces would be used up more quickly trying to destroy Israeli
targets than would be the reverse case.
Israel, on the other hand, is assumed to have over 200 nuclear weapons, both
fission and fusion. While most of them are in the 20 to 100 KT range, some have
a 1 megaton yield. They can be delivered by 100 Jericho missiles or on advanced
aircraft such as the F-15, F-16 or the Joint Strike Fighter. Israel has, at
least against chemical weapons, a meaningful civil defense.
Syria has no nuclear weapons but is assumed to have chemical weapons such as
mustard gas and nerve agents and anthrax biological weapons.
Both Israel and Iran, much like the United States and the Soviet Union during
the Cold War, are faced with choices over whether to launch preventive or
preemptive attacks or live under deterrence and mutual assured destruction
force postures. Syria has the choice of linking with or separating itself from
Iran, and being a passive or active threat.
The possible war scenarios include:
Israeli prevention, preemption of Iran
US prevention, preemption of Iran
Arms race; war of intimidation
Syrian 'wild card'
Iran nuclear, US conventional
Iran nuclear, US nuclear
State actor covert bioterrorism, suitcase nuclear
Both sides have the choice of attacking counterforce, countervalue or
counterpopulation targets. Counterforce is an attack on the enemy's military
forces, particularly its strike and retaliatory capabilities. Countervalue is
an attack on the enemy's economy to punish or deny recovery capability.
Counterpopulation is an attack on the enemy population to punish, deny recovery
capability or destroy it.
One thing that is immediately apparent is that no matter what the scenario,
given Iran's limited targeting and damage assessment capability, limited point
defense and total lack of civil defense, is that in all scenarios Iran loses;
as in ceasing to exist as a functioning state.
Even under a limited counterforce scenario where not more than 10 Iranian
cities are attacked (Tabriz, Qazvin, Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Kerman.
Qom, Ahwaz, Kermanshah), though Israel has the ability to attack all major
Iranian cities, the casualties range from 16 to 28 million. The briefing
states, "Iranian recovery is not possible in the normal sense of the term."
Iran, because of its lower yield and less accurate weapons, would try and
strike two major Israeli urban areas, Haifa and the Ashod-Tel Aviv-Yafo axis.
Such a strike would inflict 200,000 to 800,000 prompt deaths. In that scenario,
Israeli recovery is considered "theoretically possible" in population and
In an Israeli-Syrian exchange, the number of Israeli casualties is assumed to
be the same, 200,000 to 800,000, as those inflicted in a war with Iran. As
Syria has no nuclear weapons, this indicates that in the CSIS scenarios the
greater number of deaths would result from Syria's biological weapons.
Syria, on the other hand, would suffer 6 to 18 million prompt deaths. As Syria
has a maximum of 11 cities with over 80% of the population, Israel would easily
have enough weapons to target each city with three nuclear weapons.
In this scenario, Israeli recovery is considered "very possible" in population
and economic terms.
Although if Iran gets to the point that it has a substantial and dispersed
force, the Israel ability to launch a preventive attack is assumed to be gone.
Even a preemptive attack becomes more difficult as it must deny the capability
for a single retaliatory strike.
Israel's ability to "ride out" an Iranian attack is assumed to rest on
several factors, such as the ability of its own Arrow missile defense system, use of US
Patriot-3 missile defense systems, and confidence in its own intelligence and
warning abilities, as well as its own launch on warning and launch under attack
Some of the same constraints apply to the United States, although due to its
far greater military capabilities it can launch broad suppression rather than
pinpoint strikes and it has less need to use nuclear weapons against hardened
targets. It also has a greater ability to do restrikes and follow-on attacks
While the CSIS study cautions that its scenarios are designed "to test possible
contingencies, not create predictions" and that the data is very nominal and
the effects data extremely uncertain, the results can only be viewed as
horrifying. Bear in mind that those effects are counted in terms primarily of
those directly killed, and say nothing about the long-term death rate, due to
radiation exposure or destruction of infrastructure, let alone political and
Despite Israel's ability to inflict greater destruction on Iran and Syria it
still suffers enough damage that the CSIS briefing concludes: The "war game"
paradox: The only way to win is not to play.